Sometimes, even when you are very young, something happens in your life that is so profound, so astonishing and so big that you just know everything has changed and you will never be who you were again. I had one such experience at age 5, and I was to have another eleven years later.
I grew up in Bermuda. My father was a hotel manager, so I grew up in the most perfect corner of Bermuda. I would go to Warwick Academy and sing God Save the Queen in my blazer and school tie. Usually we’d take the bus home, but when mom picked us up, we’d wriggle into bathing suits in the back seat and go snorkeling for a few hours. This was pretty much every day. And, like just about everyone else at that age, at that time, I had decided that my future would consist of being a railroad engineer, or a fireman, or a cowboy ‘ that would be a Daniel Boone, coonskin cap, Winchester rifle and buckskin kind of cowboy, not the garden-variety pretty-boy kind with the chaps and the showy chrome six-shooters. I considered them a little too precious for real work, even at that age.
I didn’t know it then, but I would have traded all of that for a father with a nine-to-five job selling insurance, because the price of such a life was a dad who lived his job. Most dads lived their jobs in those days. It’s just that mine had a full day of work to do, and then a full night of entertaining as well.
So I was just happy to be spending time with my dad as we sat in the bleachers at Kindley Air Force Base, down at the other end of the island. A two hour wait in the sun is interminable at that age, but finally, six men in blue jumpsuits appeared, and walked down the flight line like robots. People applauded politely. I did too. Didn’t seem worth a two-hour wait, though’
They climbed into their silver jets with the red, white and blue stripes and the numbers on the tails. I found out later that they were F-100 Super Sabers ‘ really glorious airplanes, sleek and muscular. Down came the canopies in unison. Then they started the engines.
They taxied to the end of the runway, took off in a roar, and disappeared out over the turquoise and green reefs. Spectacular! Great show! Not sure it was worth two hours, and that one guy down there won’t stop talking’
Launched on May 25th, 1953’powerful symbol of the American Indian’never missed a show due to maintenance problems, blah blah blah…
Hey, thought the five-year-old, the jets are gone, show’s over, let’s get out of the heat…
But behind my back were six of America’s most powerful fighter aircraft and the best pilots on the planet, not a hundred feet above the water and racing toward the rear of our bleachers at nearly seven hundred miles an hour ‘ just under the speed of sound. And I mean just under.
So when I looked down at this man in the blue jumpsuit, I couldn’t hear them coming, because they were only a few feet behind their own roar. And when he said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States Air Force—‘ something caught my eye at what seemed like a few feet above my head. I saw a blur of silver and red, white and blue, and that’s about all I had time for, because the man shouted into his microphone the word ‘—THUNDERBIRDS!” and that’s when the sound hit.
And that was about all she wrote for little Billy. I was pretty much done after that.
I’ve thought a lot about courage in the last few years. And what I’ve come to realize is that behind courage is a greater emotion still, and that emotion, not surprisingly, is love.
Think about it. Think of the infantryman who throws himself onto a hand grenade. Perhaps love of country brought him to that time and place. Certainly he loved his family, his wife and children. And more than that, even, he loved his own life, his chance to watch his sons grow into honorable manhood, to give his daughter away in a small church on a Sunday morning. All of this love may have given him the courage to come to the place where he would face that grenade, but it was his love of his buddies that overcame all of that in that one instant where the heart rules the mind and courage rises unbidden from its mysterious, deep harbor.
Actions like these, time and time again, leave me speechless and dumbfounded. And yet they are commonplace in times of great peril. I have sat in silent awe of the firemen that rushed into those buildings ‘ and of all the firemen, everywhere, that do it every day. I think of passengers on an airliner who would, in that one moment of desperate courage, decide on the spot to fight hardened murderers who had spiritually and psychologically prepared themselves for years, to advance on their slashing box cutters, to break into the cockpit and push those controls forward, to stop the men from righting the plane, kicking and biting and punching as the ground filled the windows. I think of that kind of courage and am struck mute at the love those people bore for the rest of us. I gape in awe, like I did that day when I was a little boy, at the kind of society that can generate that common courage.
And in this imperfect, flawed nation of ours, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, I think about the courage it takes to be poor, to face that sickening knot of worry and despair that comes with not having the money to pay your bills. For there is no more steady and enduring courage than that of a poor family, especially a single parent, who fights a never-ending battle of brutal hours at miserable pay, of perennially unrealized dreams, and of the desperate, numb agony of disappointed children. For people like that, who force themselves to work two jobs while we sleep, to avoid the temptations of crime and dependency while surrounded by luxury and wealth the likes of which man has never known’well, that is dogged courage of a sublime nature that passes all understanding.
If courage is love coming to the rescue, then what do we make of people who willingly put themselves in great danger? How are astronauts any different than bungee jumpers or other thrill seekers? Are men and women like that simply adrenaline junkies, people who do not feel really alive unless they face danger and death at point-blank range? Do they indeed flirt with death? Because if they do, then that is not courage but rather a dark and filthy addiction. What kind of people do these things, and why?
If we really want to get to the heart and truth of the matter, we must turn once again to Hollywood ‘ for they, as usual, have gotten it absolutely, totally wrong.
For as is typical for so many who write about the military, Hollywood looks at courage and sees only bravado. Bravado is to real courage as a slick personality is to genuine character.
You do not earn the privilege of flying these amazing machines because of lightning-fast reflexes or a cocky smile, or even a best-who-ever-lived belief in your own ability. Everyone who applies has these in spades. You get to fly jets, or Space Shuttles, because you have the discipline to study phone book after phone book of manuals and procedures. It is unglamorous, tedious, vexing work. There are armies of young men and women willing to do this, who fling themselves into jungles of facts and data for the chance to sit in that chair and face death on a daily basis.
I know this because I was one of them. And then, eleven years after six red, white and blue Super Sabers changed my life, after building every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo model in the known universe, after memorizing the details of every aircraft in the US and Soviet inventory, after getting a job at the Miami Space Transit Planetarium at age 13, after correcting the tour bus guides at the Kennedy Space Center (I wanted to be shot into space, and they wanted the same, only without the capsule), after leaving any hope of a social life at the altar of after-school physics classes, after lining up letters to Senators and enduring High School Counselors who told me 6’1′ would make a pretty good basketball player, after all this and more than you can imagine, I walked out of the preliminary medical exam for the United States Air Force Academy with an optical prescription for the 20/25 vision in my left eye (20/10 in my right being irrelevant) and the inescapable reality that someone else was going to command the first Mars Mission.
That was a hard thing to do to a seventeen year old, and to this day I look at our military pilots and I am ashamed of myself. I know there’s no reason or logic to it; it’s just how I feel. Still. To this day.
The Space Shuttle is, without question, the most complex machine ever created. You look at her and see an airplane. Look deeper.
Look at her bones; her wing spars, her bulkheads and decks. Look at her delicate hydraulic blood vessels, her electrical nervous system, her computer brains and inner ear, her exquisite balancing organs. Look at the warm cocoon behind her nose, a little piece of Planet Earth set in a fortress against the vacuum and bitter cold of space. Think of her communications suite, her inertial guidance systems, her orbital maneuvering thrusters, her elevons and landing gear and rudder. Picture the slightest pressure on a man or woman’s wrist sending her rolling or pitching to a fraction of a degree. Think of her eyes, her windows ‘ windows that can hold back 2000 degree-hot plasma. Think of her revolutionary, reusable rocket motors. Think of her thermal tiles, so efficient at dissipating heat that you can hold a white-hot tile in the palm of your hand. Think of the thousands of them that make up her skin, each unique ‘ every one.
We don’t call industrial-sized air conditioning units ‘she.’ Well, most of us don’t anyway. We don’t refer to buildings this way very often, or to generators or dumpsters.
But vehicles, they are different somehow. If you do not believe it is possible to love an inanimate object, then you do not know too many teenage boys and their first cars. Ships have always been she. Airplanes, too. And I don’t think this is so hard to figure out, because there is something about a machine that takes us places, something alive and magical. Many foreign observers of America simply cannot comprehend our love of automobiles, but that is because they have never had to face crossing Texas. There is a rite of passage for everyone in the US, and that is your first teenage road trip. And no matter what kind of piece of crap you may be driving when you take that trip, that machine is serving you up pure, unrefined freedom and it’s so delirious and liberating that it makes your head spin, and carves the songs you heard during those glorious hours into that part of your brain that makes you cry when you hear them again twenty and forty and sixty years later.
A guy on a Harley knows real freedom in the single, left and right direction of the highway. Sailors know it in two dimensions, the ability to point the bow anywhere on the compass and follow it, come what may.
And then there are those of us who have worked and studied and trained like hell so that we may know freedom in all three dimensions. Now a lot of people think this makes pilots a little arrogant and aloof. Not so. The average pilot, despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. It’s just that these feelings don’t involve anyone else.
I knew, when I was sitting in those bleachers all those years ago, that those red, white and blue jets were alive. I always see airplanes that way. They live. They are here to set us free. And the most docile and sweet-natured of them can only just barely kill us.
Like most every pilot I know, I read everything I can about other people exactly like me who have managed to kill themselves in an airplane. Our crusty old flight instructors always said to us new pilots, ‘Try to learn from the mistakes of others, son ‘ you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.’
Again, like most every pilot I know, I have lost friends to the airplanes I so deeply love. No one very close yet, but that’s just a matter of time. It’s going to happen. ‘When a friend dies, you lose a friend; when you die, you lose all your friends.’ We say things like this when we start talking about our dead comrades. We say it to deflect the reality of it, of course, but what we really do is dig into the details of every fatal accident. Ah, see ‘ I wouldn’t have done THAT. You feel better. Some of the things pilots do to get themselves killed are truly and staggeringly stupid, so much so you really do tend to look at it as natural selection. But if we’re honest, we often see ourselves in the wreckage, catch a glimpse of something we almost did or might have done, or did, in fact, survive.
Like every pilot I know, I read these accident reports relentlessly, and for the same reason: to save myself from making that same mistake. And it works, too. And it does something more: it makes you face the possibility, the very idea of dying. Realistically and openly. You are making a trade with death ‘ I’ll deal with the horror in exchange for the wisdom.
I like to fly because it combines intelligence, ingenuity, passion, skill, discipline and guts. We do not flirt with danger. We try to get as far away from danger as we can. We look at the death of our friends and colleagues right in the eye so we know what it looks like when it comes for us. This is not a love or a fear of dying. This is confronting the fact that death is in fact real, and by doing so, by facing that, you do, indeed, develop courage.
Courage is not the absence of fear. It is taking action in the face of fear.
And I know courage is the stern face of love because I love to fly more than I fear being killed while flying. I do everything I possibly can to reduce the risks, knowing I can never eliminate them all. There comes a time when I can honestly tell myself I’ve been as careful as I know how to be, and then, and only then, is the time to strap in. I’ve made the risks and the fear as small as I can. The joy stays as large as it ever was.
One day, I was on a solo flight in a small, single-seat sailplane ‘ a glider about the size of a bathtub, with long, thin, very efficient wings.
It’s usually dry in the Mojave desert, but this was still early spring, and the San Gabriel Mountains were covered in snow. Wind hitting the mountains has nowhere to go but up, and so that’s where I was ‘ 80 knots, plenty of speed to get out of trouble ‘ and perhaps two wingspans away from the trees. I was so close I could see squirrel tracks in the snow. Just thinking about a turn was all it took, and I ran the contours of those mountains certain that I would never have to come down.
And then I saw something I have never seen before or since. Off my left wing, between me and the mountains, moist air was being pushed up so fast that it was condensing, turning into cloud before my eyes. It was like an inverted waterfall of smoke, and there I was, dipping a wing into it. The power of all that lift, the force and the speed of it, all that free energy ‘ and somehow, we hairless, gibbering, bickering monkeys managed to figure out a way to grab it and ride it. I remember thinking, Four billion years of struggle and evolution put me in this seat right now. Billions of dead people spent their lives dreaming of what this must be like.
And as I looked away from that upward rushing waterfall of air, I saw ahead of me another sight I had never seen before or since, for the sun was setting below a cloud layer, yet above a lower one, and there we were, just me and Apollo himself -‘ caught in an envelope of purple and gold glory that would make the most heavenly Hallmark card look like something done on an Etch-A-Sketch.
And I will never forget this feeling: I knew, right then, as if I had been hit between the eyes with a diamond bullet, that I no longer cared about dying. I had seen and done something that only the smallest handful of us have ever experienced, sailed a silent ship through a place that cannot be described or imagined. I didn’t care if the wings came off. I didn’t care if I got pushed through the grille of an oncoming truck on the way home down murderous highway 138. It just didn’t matter to me anymore. I had done this. Anything that followed in this life was gravy, and I knew it as surely as if the thought had been with me all my life.
I wouldn’t have traded that moment for the moon.
Of course, the risks we private pilots face pales in comparison to our military fliers, and is absolutely nothing compared to that met eye-to-eye by men and women like Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, and Ilan Ramon; nor does it require the courage and skill of Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, El Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis or Judy Resnik. These are the last crews of Columbia, and Challenger before her, buried with their ships in the skies over Florida and Texas. But many, many others have taken that walk in those spacesuits, smiling and waving as they pass the cameras on their way to their seats atop 2 million pounds of explosives, and they took exactly the same risks and bore them with the same courage. It is fitting that we remember the names of those lost with their ships, but not fitting at all that most of us cannot name a single living crewmember, some of whom have taken that walk four or five times.
Story Musgrave was one of those people. He described the Space Shuttle as “a beautiful butterfly that’s bolted to a bullet.”
Here’s what he meant:
Your chairs are facing the sky as you crawl into the Orbiter. You can barely move anyway in your orange pressure suits ‘ thank god for the technicians. They literally ratchet the five-point harness across your chest and legs. On a full flight, it’s four on the flight deck: Pilot and Mission Commander on the controls up front. Two behind him, three on the deck below.
You sit for hours like this ‘ minimum of three hours or so, often longer. There is a lot to think about, and I have no doubt that since Challenger rose and then fell on that cold January morning not one of them has been able to avoid seeing in their mind’s eye that horrible forked smoke trail and raining, smoldering debris. No one talks about this. No one has to. There’s a lot of smiling and nodding, but the chatter is kept to a minimum since the intercom is dominated by call-outs from launch control to the crew, most often the Mission Commander and Pilot.
There’s a lot of built-in holds, chances to catch up and work minor, last minute problems. At the T-21 minute hold, the Flight Director polls the Launch Control Team to confirm we are go for launch. This is a solemn moment. It is, in essence, the passing of a cup of responsibility. Everybody takes a sip. It’s a little less dramatic than in the Apollo days (Telemetry? GO! Cap COM? GO! Booster? GO FLIGHT!), but it’s still where we sign the check.
They pick up the countdown. There’s another built-in hold at T-9 minutes. Any one of these can, and very often does, result in catching one or more of the one million components falling out of nominal status. That’s either more delay strapped into your chair, or a trip home for the night, or the week, or the month.
T minus 31 seconds — OBS takes over, with auto-sequence start at T-28. Software is running the countdown from this point forward, but anyone at any console can stop the launch if they are not happy.
Computers are checking each system twenty-five times a second. The crew hears everything. Pilot and Mission Commander are busy as hell, but the other five are essentially passengers, and now they are scared. Now they are calling on all of their courage, reasoning with themselves. Smiling at each other. That helps a lot. That and The Nod. The Nod is untranslatable. It means, very roughly, that I know what you went through to sit here with me, and you know the same about me. It’s not something you and I can do. This is something reserved for the very best people we have as a species. That inner voice, the one we cultivate and nurture through untold hours of training and simulation, whispers to us, pushing out the fear: Those controllers are the best there are. The engineers too. The technicians. All of them. We don’t know if they can keep us safe but we know they’ve done their best, and that’s as good as it gets.
Ten, nine, eight’
Okay, head back. Here we go. On the flight deck, some orange gantry out the left window ‘ everything else is blue sky. A butterfly bolted to a bullet.
At T-6 seconds, fire-hoses of fuel and liquid oxygen begin to flow to the three main engines at the back of the Shuttle. They only give us about a quarter of the thrust we’ll need to get off the pad. But they’re on fire now, pushing the Orbiter forward, giving the crew the sickening feeling that the ship is falling over. The vanes constrict and focus the thrust ‘ we’re going to need it all now. Everything she’s got.
Come on, baby. Come on.
The entire shuttle assembly rocks back into place now, and even during these last five seconds, computers can catch a stray reading and shut it all down’
Three, two, one’
SRB ignition. The two flanking Solid Rocket Boosters ignite, pitching more than a million pounds more thrust onto the orange External Tank, the bullet that the butterfly rides into orbit.
And now you’re headed for space, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
The SRB’s kick in, and that is what it is, a hammer to the back. You were scared before; you’re terrified now. The SRB’s are horrible, they’re pigs, they scrape and hiss and rattle and they feel like they will shake that ship to pieces. Look at the cockpit cameras during launch, and you’ll see the crew battered like they’re taking speed bumps at two hundred miles an hour. Everyone hates and fears the SRB’s; you’ll never relax while they’re burning.
15 seconds in and you’re clear of the tower. The Shuttle rolls 90 degrees left, fast. You’re not only on your back now, you’re tipping over upside-down and it’s getting worse as you angle out over the Atlantic.
A few miles away stand the smartest men and women the human race has ever produced, and they are watching over you like a hawk. There’s just so goddam little they can do for you now. They’ve already done everything they can and they’re as much a passenger as you are.
You are probably too scared to think about it, and it is CERTAINLY too loud to hear, but further away, thousands and thousands more watch the glare as the SRB’s light. The Shuttle rolls off the pad in complete silence at that distance. It’s surreal. There’s nothing to compare it to. People are usually kind of quiet.
Then the sound hits you: you feel it in your chest more than hear it, the sound of millions of pieces of thick canvas being torn all at once. And then a funny thing happens, because you’re surrounded by people but suddenly you’re all alone out there ‘ sunburn forgotten, mosquitoes a memory from a past life. You’re ten or fifteen or twenty miles away, but it’s just you and the white butterfly now, that’s all there is. You’re crying and you don’t know it, you’re screaming but you can’t hear it, you’re jumping up and down, and it’s every time a Gator wide receiver ever beat a Florida State defensive end and he’s just pulling away and ain’t nothin’ gonna stop him now ‘ he’s going all the way.
Go, baby! Go! GO! Go you son of a bitch! Yeah, they say she burns liquid hydrogen and LOX, but that’s just camouflage. It’s pure love that keeps that ship in the sky.
And she is going. She’s going like a bat out of hell. And every traffic jam and dental appointment and blind date and income tax form is suddenly worth it to be able to see this with your own eyes, to live through a time like this. It’s a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke, but it’s not God coming down to speak to us, it’s us going up to have a word with Him. Good GOD look at her go!
40 seconds. The mains throttle back. Nothing stops the goddam solids: they keep roaring and hissing and knocking loose your fillings if you’re dumb enough or human enough to keep your teeth clenched. We’re at Max Q, and the Shuttle is experiencing the highest aerodynamic loads it can bear. We keep getting faster, but the air starts to thin. This is as hard as the air can push back, and if we do it at full power we’ll be blown to pieces.
Fifty years ago it took all the Right Stuff we had in the box to push a tiny orange glider level through the sound barrier. Now we do it in less than a minute, straight up, from a standing start, with a spacecraft the size of a ten story building weighing a few million pounds. Ka-BOOOM! Mach 1, baby, and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
A little more than a minute and most of the atmosphere is behind us. Main engines back up to 104%
“Challenger GO at throttle-up'”
That’s as far as Challenger got that cold January morning. 73 seconds. End of story.
‘Roger Columbia, we copy you go at throttle-up’
I know how they must have felt at 2:02 ‘ a kick and a pop, and all of a sudden, the ride turns to pure velvet as the SRB’s fall away. I know one of them must have looked at another and smiled. We’re safe now.
Well, safer. Now a complete engine failure could result in a return glide to Kennedy. Forget all that nonsense about parachutes and escape poles. At mach 5 and climbing the air is as hard as concrete.
2:32 ‘ we’ve been in the air for two and a half minutes, and we are high and fast enough now to glide to Africa.
4:20 ‘ Two engine Abort to Orbit ‘ if we lose a main engine now, the other two will get us to orbit. We can sort things out up there.
7:00 ‘ One engine ATO. Even better. We’re gonna make it.
7 minutes, 45 seconds. MECO. Main Engine Cut Off. Welcome to by-God outer space! Everything is strapped down except your arms. They float in front of you like they do at the top of a roller coaster. Only this one is going to last for two weeks. You’re weightless.
A few moments later the External Tank falls away, headed for the Indian Ocean. That funny dark spot is where some of the insulating foam came off during launch. It’s happened before. Probably nothing to worry about’
Back during the Apollo days, before we forgot that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to, the Space Shuttle was going to be a different bird indeed. Not a butterfly strapped to a bullet at all, but more a hawk on the back of an eagle.
No SRB’s, no O-rings, no foam insulation, no External Tank falling away into the ocean half a world away. No, the original plans for the Shuttle called for something that would have looked a bit like those pictures you’ve seen of the Orbiter riding on the back of a 747, as it’s moved from Edwards Air Force Base back to Florida.
Almost all of the weight lifting off that pad is fuel. Why? Because it takes insane amounts of thrust to go straight up. The engines on a 747 don’t lift us into the air ‘ the wings do that. All the engines do is keep the aircraft moving forward fast enough for lift to develop, and it takes a lot less energy to go forward than it does to go up.
In the original design, an orbiter sat on the back of a manned, winged transport. The shuttle would take off from a runway ‘ any major airport would do ‘ climb to about 100,000 feet using jet engines, and let aerodynamics do the heavy lifting just as it does on a jumbo jet today. Then, already moving at several times the speed of sound and with 95% of the atmosphere below it, the Orbiter would separate and using a scramjet ‘ supersonic ramjet ‘ claw for more speed and altitude until there was practically no air left at all. The front of the scramjet would close, making it into a rocket, and liquid oxygen would be added to the fuel. Although you wouldn’t need too much ‘ you were most of the way there already.
This was an elegant, reliable and very safe way to get to orbit. Once built, it would have gotten the cost of going into space down to rates that approached flying the Concorde. But to build it was expensive, and after Apollo 11, we had bigger fish to fry.
No one has been able to tell me what those fish were.
Anyway, never time or money to do things right, but always the time and money to do them over. And over.
Solid Rocket Boosters and foam-covered External Tanks were engineering sleight-of-hand tricks to get us to space on far less money than we needed to do it right. It was like making a lunar lander out of old boilers and playground equipment. To the extent that the Shuttle has flown 111 out 113 missions successfully is a testament to the skill and dedication of NASA’s engineers and administrators, and not, I’m afraid, to the vision or commitment of the Congress, the President or the American People.
Look at the pictures of Columbia after a landing at Kennedy, and you are struck by just how dirty she was by the time of her last mission. Well, she was 22 years old ‘ that’s old for titanium and steel that’s been shaken and burned and twisted and rattled, freezing on one side and boiling on the other during her weeks and weeks in the unforgiving vacuum a few miles above us. But it looks as though Columbia herself never failed her crew. Challenger certainly did not. It looks like components of the External Tank and SRB’s did both Orbiters fatal harm. These ships were destroyed, and their crews perished, because of the various band-aids and cost-cutting work-arounds we applied to what was once a magnificent design. NASA was forced to do this to maintain our tenuous status as a spacefaring species, and I applaud and admire them for that ingenuity and courage. For all her design short-cuts, I would fly the Shuttle tomorrow. Please let me fly the Shuttle tomorrow.
The scales of Joy and Fear somehow balance. On its final mission, the Challenger Seven never got to space, and her crew died not long after she cleared the pad and climbed into memory.
But the crew of Columbia had a much larger helping of joy ‘ sixteen days in orbit, almost a hundred sunrises and sunsets, playing weightless choo-choo trains through narrow tunnels and tweaking gravity’s tail good and long and hard ‘ and the Columbia Seven would be destined to pay for that by several minutes of knowing that they were about to die.
As they strapped themselves in for the long, quiet ride home, they had the satisfaction of a job so well done that NASA was calling it the textbook mission.
Rick Husband took his six crewmembers rock climbing during their years of training. He wanted to bond them into more than a crew. He did: he made them into a family. There’s a picture of them in shorts and sunglasses, atop that mountain, admiring the view. They look like they’d known each other since grade school.
I’ll bet they talked about that day as they pulled down their visors, and Willie McCool pitched the Orbiter on its back for the de-orbit burn. They talked about who was waiting for them, where they would go, what they would have for dinner.
As Columbia began to press against the first thin wisps of air, a little hint of gravity, a little push at the small of their backs must have felt strange after sixteen days of weightlessness. But it was time to go home. And like all coworkers facing the end of a close assignment and weeks and months of hard work together, I know they planned to get together over the years. I know Laurel and Mike were talking about their families, Dave and Kalpana already grinning about being the old salts next time and how much they would miss this team, this family, in all of their future rides on the bullet. Ilan Ramon must have invited them all to his house in Israel, perhaps a few years from now when things had settled down a little. It’s beautiful there. I know that they meant it too, that these were not idle platitudes but real offers from people who knew they would be friends for the rest of their lives.
And so they were.
Perhaps ten minutes before eight am on Saturday morning, Rick Husband and Willie McCool started to pay attention to the data coming from the left wing sensors. It was 30 degrees warmer than normal in the left wheel well. Not much, considering the 2-3000 degrees on the leading edge of their wings and nose, but something to pay attention to. Anomalies are never good. There are no pleasant surprises in the flying business.
By 7:55 things were looking worse ‘ a lot worse. Unbenownst to the crew, telemetry beamed to the ground showed that readings from the heat sensors in the left wing started to rise, and then dropped to zero. They were failing, in a pattern expanding away from the left wheel well. Tire pressures were way high on the left side, and then those sensors failed too.
Sensors fail all the time. But this was different. This was a pattern, and it was spreading. And something was starting to pull the ship to the left.
I don’t know the words he used, but I can hear the tone perfectly in my head, because it’s exactly the same tone I’ve heard dozens of times on cockpit voice recorders. It’s concern. Alarm, even. But it’s cool. Disciplined.
All right, we’ve got a problem here…
The Pilot and Mission Commander probably never exchanged the knowing look that we’d see in the movie. They were too busy working the problem. But in the two seats behind them, and the three below, those five brave passengers looked at each other and now the smiles and the grins were gone.
Something was wrong with Columbia‘s left wing. The air that should be slipping over and under her like water off the back of a duck had found something to hold on to: almost certainly some missing tiles knocked loose by insulating foam coming off the External Tank. But 3000 degree ionized air was pushing into that wing, and heat sensors were winking out one by one because they were being burned through by gas far hotter and sharper than that at the end of a blowtorch.
Guys, we’re in real trouble here.
The Commander would have told them. I have no doubt of this at all. You love and respect those people, people who have shown courage the likes of which we will never know. These are not babies, not shrieking, hysterical, self-centered celebrities either. These are astronauts. They deserve to know.
The air pushing backward and into that left wing continued to yaw the nose of the orbiter to the left. This cannot be allowed to happen ‘ the ship will disintegrate if she doesn’t come in at exactly the right angle. So the computers flying Columbia commanded the aircraft to roll right, to bring that left wing forward using the rudder and elevons, the controls on the wing and tail that made Columbia an airplane and not merely a space capsule.
It wasn’t working. Columbia still pulled hard to the left, so hard that the computers fired the attitude control rockets on the nose to try and force it back into the relative wind. When that happened, when they heard the roar of those rockets firing in a last desperate effort to keep that ship intact, and when the rockets fired again, and kept firing, Rick Husband and Willie McCool must have known that they were not going home that day.
Guys, it’s Rick. I don’t think we’re gonna make it.
And I know what courage did for these people. I know they looked at each other and nodded, and whether they actually said goodbye I know it was in their eyes. We know it. We know. We saw it on the deck of the Titanic, in the aisles on United Flight 93. On some level, they had all said goodbye to their families and their lives before they walked through that circular hatch, right below the word COLUMBIA.
When PSA Flight 182 collided with a small plane over San Diego in 1978, and dove straight into the ground trailing fire from the wing, the last words on the Cockpit Voice Recorder was a calm, level, ‘Ma, I love you.’
And in that last second, there may just have been enough time, as that bulkhead wall opened into golden and purple light, to smile and think, It was worth it. It was a great ride. I wouldn’t have traded this for the m
Buildings shook in Texas. Columbia was coming home.